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Marvin G. Knittel Ed.D.

When Is It Time to Let Go of Our Young Adult Child?

From the moment our children are born, we must help them become independent.

Marvin Knittel
Source: Marvin Knittel

Life is both about hanging on and letting go. For example, as I age, I need to let go of things I physically can no longer do. There are a host of other things that I try to let go of—like the need to be right, the need to be in control, the need to blame others for my shortcomings, and so forth. We all tell ourselves from time to time to let go of those things, but often find ourselves hanging on for a variety of reasons.

I have two grown children and five grandchildren. Hanging on and letting go is a challenging part of parenting. For example, when my kids were young, I had control over who played with whom or when they needed to be home. As they got older and more mature, I needed to learn how to relax control and let them assume more personal responsibility.

In spite of everything we do as parents, things don't always work out exactly the way we would like. Consider the following stories.

A Tale of Two Adults

Adam is 22 and has begun his first year of teaching. He frequently defers major decisions until he can talk to his parents. Even when he nudges his parents into telling him what to do, he feels angry when they do. He, irrationally, thinks "Somehow I feel attached to them as if I'm still in high school. I wonder when they will let go and let me live my life?"

Janet, also 22, has just joined an accounting firm and enthusiastically welcomes this new stage of her independence. She carries a sense of confidence and well-being attached firmly to a set of internalized standards. She emails her parents to say, "I am settled in with my roommate and have enjoyed my first month with the firm. Thanks for everything. I'll keep you up to date on how things go." She clicks "send" knowing she can confer with them anytime she wants and knows they will respect her decisions even if they disagree.

Janet came from a family that recognized and valued her uniqueness. She learned as a young child that the world did not revolve around her. She also learned the art of problem-solving and that freedom comes with responsibility. Her identity is not an extension of her mother or her father.

Adam, on the other hand, became accustomed to depending on his parents for direction and advice. He tries to anticipate what his parents will think. If they are pleased, he is pleased. If they are disappointed, he is disappointed. He thinks that a "parental stamp of approval" should be on almost every decision he makes. Adam wants to be independent and dependent at the same time.

We wonder why Janet and Adam approach life so differently. We assume that parents have had the greatest influence but we all have an "X factor" embedded in our genetic makeup passed on from past generations.

The Road to Independence

An important goal for parents is to hear their children tell them in one form or another, "I don't need you anymore." That is difficult for many of us to accept. Nevertheless, it essentially becomes the goal of every parent the day their child is born.

Preschool: Parents nurture and guide their children during the first five years of their life in preparation for the day they put on their backpack and head for school.

Adolescents: Typically, everything goes along pretty smoothly—and then they become an adolescent. These are the challenging years, in which the adolescent straddles the divide between childhood and adulthood. These are the years when emotions swing back and forth as they experiment with hanging on and letting go. As they challenge the boundaries, we gradually relax them, hoping they have reached a level of maturity and decision-making abilities that will allow us to let go. The process is gradual. A lot has to do with intuition.

Adulthood: Seemingly overnight, the adolescent becomes a young adult. As we watch them march across the stage to receive their high school diploma, we are reminded of the lyrics in Fiddler on the Roof: "When did they grow so tall?"

We have before us a young person with whom we stand shoulder to shoulder and eye to eye just as we do with any other adults in our lives. And yet, we are far more than just "another adult." We are the adults who will always be the "satellite" on which our children's GPS is focused. We will always be there for them. We will empower them but not control them. We will confer with them and always respect their decisions, even when we disagree.

This is a time to "Meet and Confer." We will have completed our task of guiding and providing and will always be available to confer with this adult.